of Zeus at Olympia
to Greek God Zeus
5th Century A.D.
around 40 ft. (12m)
| Made of: Ivory
and gold-plated plates on wooden frame.
of the workshop where it was built was found during an excavation
in the 1950's
Look at the Statue of Zeus
n ancient times one
of the Greeks most mportant festivals, the Olympic Games, was
held every four years in honor of the King of their gods, Zeus.
Like our modern Olympics, athletes traveled from distant lands,
including Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Sicily, to compete. The
Olympics were first started in 776 B.C. and held at a shrine to
Zeus located on the western coast of Greece in a region called
Peloponnesus. The games helped to unify the Greek city-states
and a sacred truce was declared. Safe passage was given to all
traveling to the site, called Olympia, for the season of the games.
The Temple at Olympia
The site consisted
of a stadium - where the competitions were actually done - and
a sacred grove, or Altis, where a number of temples were located.
The shrine to Zeus here was simple in the early years, but as
time went by and the games increased in importance, it became
obvious that a new, larger temple, one worthy of the King of the
gods, was needed. Between 470 and 460 B.C., construction on a
new temple was started. The designer was Libon of Elis and his
masterpiece, The Temple of Zeus, was completed in 456 B.C..
This temple followed
a design used on many large Grecian temples. It was similar to
the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
The temple was built on a raised, rectangular platform. Thirteen
large columns supported the roof along the sides and six supported
it on each end. A gently-peaked roof topped the building. The
triangles, or "pediments," created by the sloped roof at the ends
of the building were filled with sculpture. Under the pediments,
just above the columns, was more sculpture depicting the twelve
labors of Heracles, six on each end of the temple.
Though the temple was
considered one of the best examples of the Doric design because
of its style and the quality of the workmanship, it was decided
the temple alone was too simple to be worthy of the King of the
gods. To remedy this, a statue was commissioned for the interior.
It would be a magnificent statue of Zeus that would become one
of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
A Statue Worthy
of the King of the Gods
The sculptor chosen
for this great task was a man named Phidias. He had already rendered
a forty-foot high statue of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon
in Athens and had also done much of the sculpture on the exterior
of that temple. After his work in Athens was done, Phidias traveled
to Olympia around 432 B.C. to start on what was to be considered
his best work, the statue of Zeus. On arriving he set up a workshop
to the west of the temple. He would take the next 12 years to
complete the project.
According to accounts,
the statue when finished was located at the western end of the
temple. It was 22 feet wide and more than 40 feet tall. The figure
of Zeus was seated on an elaborate throne. His head nearly grazed
the roof. The historian Strabo wrote, "...although the temple
itself is very large, the sculptor is criticized for not having
appreciated the correct proportions. He has depicted Zeus seated,
but with the head almost touching the ceiling, so that we have
the impression that if Zeus moved to stand up he would unroof
Others who viewed that
temple disagreed with Strabo and found the proportions very effective
in conveying the god's size and power. By filling nearly all the
available space, the statue was made to seem even larger than
it really was.
Philo of Byzantium,
who wrote about all of the wonders, was certainly impressed. "Whereas
we just wonder at the other six wonders, we kneel in front of
this one in reverence, because the execution of the skill is as
incredible as the image of Zeus is holy…"
In 97 A.D. another
visitor Dio Crysostomos declared the image was so powerful that,
"If a man, with a heavy heart from grief and sorrow in life, will
stand in front of the statue, he will forget all these."
In his right hand the
statue held the figure of Nike (the goddess of victory) and in
its left was a scepter "inlaid with every kind of metal..." which
was topped with an eagle. Perhaps even more impressive than the
statue itself was the throne made out of gold, ebony, ivory and
inlaid with precious stones. Carved into the chair were figures
of Greek gods and mystical animals, including the half man/half
The figure's skin
was composed of ivory and the beard, hair and robe of gold. Construction
was by a technique known as chryselephantine where gold-plated
bronze and ivory sections were attached to a wooden frame. Because
the weather in Olympia was so damp, the statue required care so
that the humidity would not crack the ivory. It is said that for
centuries the decedents of Phidias held the responsibility for
this maintenance. To keep it in good shape the statue was constantly
treated with olive oil kept in a special reservoir in the floor
of the temple that also served as a reflecting pool. Light reflected
off the pool from the doorway may also have had the effect of
illuminating the statue.
The Greek traveler
Pausanias recorded that when the statue was finally completed,
Pheidias asked Zeus for a sign that the work was to his liking.
The god replied by touching the temple with a thunderbolt that
did no damage. According to the account a bronze hydria (water
vessel) was placed at the spot where the thunderbolt hit the structure.
Besides the statue,
there was little inside the temple. The Greeks preferred the interior
of their shrines to be simple. The feeling it gave was probably
very much like the Lincoln Memorial or Jefferson Memorial with
their lofty marble columns and single, large statues. However
with a height greater than 40 feet, the statue of Zesus was more
than twice as tall as Lincoln's likeness at his memorial on the
mall in Washington D.C..
Copies of the statue
were made, but none survive, though pictures found on coins give
researchers clues about its appearance.
Despite his magnificent
work at Olympia, Phidias ran into trouble when he returned home.
He was a close friend with Pericles, who ruled the Athens. Enemies
of Pericles, unable to strike at the ruler directly, attacked
his friends instead. Phidias was accused of stealing gold meant
for the statue of Athena. When that charge failed to stick, they
claimed he had carved his image, and that of Pericles into the
sculpture found on the Parthenon. This would have been improper
in the Greeks' eyes and Phidias was thrown into jail where he
died awaiting trial.
His masterpiece lived
on, however. It was damaged in an earthquake in 170 B.C. and repaired.
However, much of its grandeur was probably lost after Emperor
Constantine decreed that gold be stripped from all pagan shrines
after he converted to Christianity in the early fourth century
A.D.. Then in 392 A.D. the Olympics were abolished by Emperor
Theodosius I of Rome, a Christian who saw the games as a pagan
rite. After that according to the Byzantine historian Georgios
Kedrenos, the statue was moved by a wealthy Greek named Lausus
to the city of Constantinople where it became part of his private
collection of classical art. It is believed that the remains of
the statue were destroyed by a fire that swept the city in 475
A.D.. However, other sources say the statue was still at the Olympic
Temple when it burned down in 425 A.D..
The first archaeological
work on the Olympia site was done by a group of French scientists
in 1829. They were able to locate the outlines of the temple and
found fragments of the sculpture showing the labors of Heracles.
These pieces were shipped to Paris where they are still on display
today at the Louvre.
The next expedition
came from Germany in 1875 worked at Olympia for five summers.
Over that period they were able to map out most of the buildings
there, discovered more fragments of the temple's sculpture, and
located the remains of the pool in the floor that contained the
oil for the statue.
In the 1950's an excavation
uncovered the workshop of Phidias which was discovered beneath
an early Christian Church. Archaeologists found sculptor's tools,
a pit for casting bronze, clay molds, modeling plaster and even
a portion of one of the elephant's tusks which had supplied the
ivory for the statue. Many of the clay molds, which had been used
to shape the gold plates, bore serial numbers which must have
been used to show the place of the plates in the design.
A 19th century expedition
poses on the jumbled ruins of the Temple of Zeus. Today the stadium
at the site has been restored. Little is left of the temple, though,
except a few jumbled columns on the ground. Of the statue, which
was perhaps the most wonderful work at Olympia, all is now completely
1908 artist's conception of the temple at Olympia.
Copyright Lee Krystek, 1998-2011